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The Wellcome Library’s Manuscript Recipe Books: Reflections on a Quarter-century of Collecting

By Richard Aspin

Page from Lady Ayscough’s book of ‘Receits of phisick and chirurgery’, dated 1692, the first recorded acquisition for Henry Welcome’s library in 1897 (Wellcome Western MS.1026)

Manuscript recipe books were at the forefront of Henry Wellcome’s collecting activities. Perhaps no other genre of European written artefact spoke more directly to his conception of healthcare as the fundamental preoccupation of human beings. Indeed his first recorded Library acquisition in 1897 was a late 17th-century English manuscript recipe book. At the time of Wellcome’s death in 1936 there were probably between 150 and 200 such books in the collection, depending on how they are defined. Thirty of so of these came from the cookery book collection of John Hodgkin of Reading (1857-1930), purchased at Hodgson’s auctioneers in London in April 1931.

Acquisition of recipe books fell away after 1936, in line with overall retrenchment in the development of the collections; but it is probable that this genre of manuscript suffered disproportionately as the focus of the postwar Wellcome Library and later Institute was firmly directed towards the history of scientific medicine and professional practice. Not more than a dozen manuscript recipe books were acquired between 1936 and 1986. There was no obvious scholarly interest in the history of domestic medicine, and it was not even clear that cookery was a relevant subject for a medical library.

This was the position of the field when I came into post as curator of western manuscripts in 1991. I occasionally purchased manuscript recipe books for the Wellcome collection over the coming years – we had a generous acquisitions allowance and manuscripts of this type were fairly inexpensive – but I had little sense of developing an important research resource. The standout acquisition of the nineties, Lady Ann Fanshawe’s book (MS.7113), which has recently been the subject of a popular monograph[1], was purchased as much for its associational and provenance interest as its content, and the hammer price at auction of £2800 in 1995 (equivalent to just over £5000 today), which now seems nugatory, was deemed somewhat extravagant at the time. When cataloguing recipe books we more or less followed the pattern set by S.A.J. Moorat, who after the war had catalogued the items acquired in Henry Wellcome’s time: scant attention was paid to the nature and content of the recipes beyond a broad indication of whether they were medicinal or culinary.

Little did I know that the growth of research interest in this genre of manuscript was already well under way, and not just in the productions of one or two ladies-bountiful, but in the wider practice of recipe-making and taking among the middling sort in early modern England. How I slowly became aware of this is now difficult to reconstruct: certainly it had nothing to do with proximity to the Wellcome Institute academic history of medicine department, where there seemed to be very little interest in recipes. It was probably largely owing to the growing number of researchers consulting our recipe books in the Wellcome Library, often Americans, and often coming from a literary studies rather than a medical history background.

The phenomenon was sufficiently salient to lead me to propose a seminar series on recipes to the academic department’s programme committee, which duly took place in autumn 2002, and led in due course to the formation of the Medicinal Receipts Research Group the following year. In the meantime the evident research interest in recipes stimulated increased collecting activity, such that well over a hundred additional English manuscript recipe books have entered the collection over the past twenty-five years. Many more could have been added: indeed, along with the growing realisation of the research value of these books has been a recognition of just how ubiquitous this genre of manuscript must have been among the literate population of early modern England.

The growing research interest in recipe books was marked by the microfilming of a substantial proportion of our collection by Thomson Gale in 2003[2], albeit framed within a now rather anachronistic-looking women’s history paradigm. Later, the seventeenth-century books – some seventy or so volumes – were digitised and their contents selectively indexed, so that individual recipe headings could be searched on-line. It was becoming clear that in addition to the evident interest of one or two standout recipe books such as the Fanshawe volume, the generality of books

Remedy for the plague from Lady Ann Fanshawe’s recipe book, mid 17th cent (Wellcome Western MS.7113)

formed in aggregate a substantial research resource that could be used by scholars to illuminate questions such as the circulation of recipes, the relationship between domestic and elite medicine, and the use of exotic drugs.

Paradoxically the prices realised on the open market have not reflected the increased availability of manuscripts for purchase; if in the 1990s we could buy a solid if unremarkable late-seventeenth or eighteenth century recipe book for £350 or £400, this had increased at least tenfold by 2017. Such an exponential price rise almost certainly implies vigorous activity by a new generation of collectors building twenty-first century equivalents of the John Hodgkin cookery book collection. I am not aware of any other public collection in the UK that targets recipe books as a genre of manuscript. The price rise almost certainly means that the period of ‘heroic’ collecting of recipe manuscripts by Wellcome has come to an end. Henceforth acquisitions – of which there seems to be no sign of a diminishing supply – will no doubt be highly selective. In short, the Wellcome’s collection is to all intents and purposes complete.

Richard Aspin was curator of western manuscripts and later head of special collections in the Wellcome Library from 1991 to 2016. He took a leading part in developing the Library’s research collections during that time, including the Wellcome’s unrivalled range of early modern domestic recipe manuscripts, which are today the most-frequently consulted pre-twentieth century manuscript materials in the library. His investigation of the links between two seventeenth-century recipe manuscripts in the collection was published as ‘Who was Elizabeth Okeover?’, in Medical History, 2000, 44: 531-540


[1] Lucy Moore, Lady Fanshawe’s Receipt Book: The Life and Times of a Civil War Heroine (2017)

[2] Women and medicine : remedy books, 1533-1865 : from the Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine, London, ed. Sara Pennell (2004)


An Extra Slice…

By Tallulah Maait Pepperell

Selected illustrations from the cookbook Dra. Oetkera przepisy dla skrzętnych gospodyń [Dr. Oetker’s recipes for industrious housewives] (Poland, 1930s). Left to right, top row: Bundt cake (baba), chocolate (marble) Bundt cake; middle row: cheesecake (sernik), spice cake (piernik), hazelnut torte; bottom row: chocolate and coffee torte, poppyseed torte. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Earlier this month, I was given a chance I would have been mad to pass up. A week before, Lisa Smith forwarded an email from Sean O’Hanlon from Love Productions, asking for recipe and food historians who would be interested in putting together some historical bakes and appearing on The Great British Bake Off: An Extra Slice. I was a little unsure, due the fact that I’m only a second-year undergraduate, and I wouldn’t call myself a food historian at all, but with some gentle encouragement and some serious Fear Of Missing Out, I applied.

I had never made a historical recipe before, but I had one on hand that I had wanted to try. A recipe for English Biskotts from the seventeenth century, it was easy enough to make in my student accommodation, but the measurements were so complicated that I spent half my time trying to work out what the end result would be. This was the perfect excuse.

Friday was a pretty frantic day of baking, trying to assemble a recipe that–perhaps–had not been tried for close to four centuries, trying to make it edible, tasty, and historically accurate at the same time. In the end I made two tin-loaves worth of what ended up like very strange, but also delicious, old English biscotti.

To entertain myself, I took a few of them into the university, asking for reviews from brave members of the History Department who were willing to trust my baking skills. While I did not find the biskotts very tasty, my willing guinea pigs seemed to enjoy them. The reviews came back positive: they reminded people of gingerbread, salted caramel, and evoked memories of Christmas.

I wasn’t expecting anything back from the producers but by the next week I had a reply; they were interested in having me on the show! I was asked to come to London on Saturday, 14th October, bringing with me my biskotts, my “Production Guest” ticket, and a stomach full of butterflies. I made my way to the ITV studios on London’s Southbank, arrived half an hour early, was told to come back later. I was  finally given a wristband and escorted upstairs with all the other audience members and guests to watch a preview of the latest episode before filming.

In the studio, I was informed that sadly I was not going to be interviewed for the show, but they managed to fit me in the front filming audience instead of the background audience! I took my seat with two very lovely guests and settled in for filming. I was in the back row but still had the chance to see Jo Brand, Stacey Solomon, Joe Wilkinson, and Richard Osman do their thing. Filming is a tiring job, especially when you’re asked to fake-cry over Liam leaving (some of those were real tears though), clap until your hands hurt, and eat leftover cake! It’s a tough job, but I was glad I could help.

By the end of the day I was tired, aching, and full of cake, but it had been a day I was so glad I hadn’t passed up. There’s something special about being able to sit behind the scenes and watch a show come together, and even help in your own way. Thank you so much to Lisa for recommending I do it, Love Productions for inviting me on, and–if you look hard enough–you can maybe spot me in the background! (Hint: short hair, purple cardigan, looks a bit star-struck the whole way through, and if you need a clue check out the picture below).

Audience at Extra Slice filming, 14 October 2017.


Tallulah is a student at the University of Essex and worked as an assistant on our ‘What is a Recipe?’ Virtual Conversation in the summer of 2017.

Recipe transcribathon time!

We are delighted to announce the third annual recipe transcribathon, hosted by the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective.

Recipe containing elf hoof from Margaret Baker’s manuscript. Source: Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a.619.

Fancy taking a dip into some seventeenth-century recipes? Learning a bit about reading old handwriting? And participating in a wider project with lots of other recipe enthusiasts?

Then the EMROC Transcribathon just might be for you!

The goal in previous years has been to take one book and finish a triple-keyed transcription of it over twelve hours. In 2016, 128 people from around the world finished Lady Castleton’s book, and in 2015, we had ninety-three transcribers complete Rebeckah Winche’s book.

This year, EMROC is trying something a little different. Rather than focus on one book, there will be a BANQUET OF BOOKS. As Amy Tigner of EMROC explains,

Our goal is to have 10 completed texts this year, that is 10 triple-transcribed and vetted early modern recipe books that can be downloaded in a searchable pdf. We currently have a number of texts that are either partially transcribed or fully transcribed but not completely vetted. So, in working to complete these texts we will be offering a banquet of possibilities for those interested in learning more about early modern recipes and paleography.

Page from Cromwell’s book, with code. Source: Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a.8.

The three books on offer are: Margaret Baker, Susannah Packe, and Letitia Cromwell. I have a soft spot for Baker, having worked on her book with my Digital Recipe Books Project module last year. (The class blogged about it here  and developed a contextual online exhibition about the book here.) The Baker manuscript has many intriguing elements, such as excerpts from published medical and alchemical treatises and a recipe that calls for elf hoof! But the other books have their delights, as well. Cromwell has a recipe for the proverbial humble pie and a page written in code, while Packe has a great sections with candy, fruit wines, and beer.

For those who like things a little easier, I recommend Baker (almost entirely one hand, fairly clear, throughout) or Packe (one easy and neatly spaced hand, and one slightly harder, messier hand). Cromwell, with its mix of hands will appeal more to those with experience.

Example from Packe’s book. Source: Folger Shakespeare Library, Va215.

EMROC also has helpful guides to doing transcription and how to use the online transcription tool, Dromio. You can also send in your questions to other transcribers on Twitter or by commenting on the EMROC blog posts ( that day. If you have never used Dromio before, please feel free to take a peek behind the scenes, try it out, and send in your questions. (Instructions here for getting involved and accessing Dromio.)

Interested? Then please mark your calendars for NOVEMBER 7. I’ll be kicking things off in the U.K. from 12:30-4:30 p.m. GMT, both virtually and from the University of Essex Colchester campus. And several American groups will be joining in from 9:00 a.m. EST.

If you’re joining virtually, please keep checking the EMROC blog, Facebook page, Twitter account (@EMRecipesOnline) and Twitter hashtag (#EMROCtranscribes) for updates, or to join in the conversation. We hope that you will let us know about your experience and tell us any interesting find or puzzling conundrum you discover!

Day 9: What is a Recipe?

Ferdinand Wright, Summer Landscape, 1877. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

We hope you’re still enjoying this brilliant weather and are equally as excited for our last big event day of the virtual conversation on ‘What is a Recipe?’. We’ve got some brilliant new topics coming your way and some of our oldies, but goodies, joining us too.

“Teaching Cookbooks: A Twitter Conversation on Food, Gender, History & Writing” from Emily Contois with the hashtag #teachingcookbooks. Twitter: @emilycontois and website: Emily will be sharing her reading list, lesson plan, and teaching tips—plus some of her students’ cookbook analysis essays in a 24 hour twitter chat on the topic starting from 8am.

Credit: Katherine Hysmith.

“#FreeFireCider: Folk Herbalists, Feminist Hashtags, and the Instagram Modernity” from Katherine Cheyenne Hysmith. Twitter: @kchysmith, Instagram: @kchysmith and blog post here. Herbalists regard Fire Cider as a community-owned recipe but it has built up a commercial niche. Katherine will be exploring the historic “recipe” and how this community of shared knowledge deals with modern legal issues with a focus on the Instagram accounts of women folk entrepreneurs, how they use the hashtag #freefirecider in the hopes of winning back their recipe, and, in turn, help form a folk narrative within the Instagram modernity.

“Teaching Recipes: Recipes as Sources for Women’s Lives” from Rachel Snell.  Rachel blogs about her module here and shares the website of students’ work from “Food, Femininity, and Feminism in American Culture from Amelia Simmons to Martha Stewart”, which looks at the ways in which  the production and consumption of food fundamentally shaped concepts of femininity and feminism in American culture.

“‘Unboxing’ a new acquistion” from Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine at the University of Minnesota. We’ll be witness to the ‘unboxing’ of a new French receipt book manuscript! Facebook:, Twitter: @umnbiomedlib, and Instagram: @umnlib.

From the Potato Experiment.

The “Spuddenly Farming: A reconstruction of Rev. Mr. Cochran’s Potato experiment, 1791” from Siobhan Carlson is back again with updates on the experiment! Siobhan will be on Instagram  @SpuddenlyFarming and Twitter @Spuddenly_Farm

“Henri’s Kitchen”, the final installment in which Harry Hayfield looks at Boeuf Bourginon through the eyes of his seventeenth-century musketeer, Henri.

“Recipes in the Early Royal Society Archives” from Sietske Fransen, who has been exploring the visual practice of the early Royal Society will be on twitter as @sietske_fransen and @MVCRASSH and her blog post on her archives tweets here.

Still ongoing we’ve got ‘Cooking With Anger’  where you can join the comments and create your own improvised recipe from a basket of ingredients. If you joined in Day 8’s discussions about fictional foods, you might enjoy taking a crack at ‘Cooking With Anger’.

In any case, make sure to check out Tallulah’s intriguing blog post about ‘Stories and memories: Day 8 of the Recipes Project’ where she explores all of the brilliant things which happened on Monday– including that extended discussion of fictional meals! She also discusses the focus on reconstructions, discussions of the ‘art’ of a good recipe and the connections between recipes and family history, and the many forms of recipes that appear in our daily lives.

It looks like there’s going to be a lot of themes today for our last big event day with focus on gender, community, improvisational cooking, digital recipes, and pedagogy cropping up already. We’ll have to see if we get reconstruction popping up again today…

We’ll see you again on the 10th with a final recording at the Wellcome Library.